What Do Your Clothes Say About You?
|The Science of Clothing
With Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD
|Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer
|View this issue in PDF and Digital formats.
Did you know that your perceived personality, status, and even intelligence can all be affected by the way you dress? Dr. Regan A. R. Gurung, now in his 17th year at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, is an expert in the science of clothing. Fascinated by uncovering the effects of clothing on perception and learning, he strives to educate others about the importance of appearance and what you can do to always look your best.
Cutting straight to some concrete advice, Dr. Gurung says, “In terms of inferring positive characteristics, one of the most important traits is conscientiousness and how organized you are. For example, when faculty members dress well, they are perceived as more organized, which in turn has been linked to better learning and more attention. If you care about self-presentation or how you are seen, the key to inferring positive characteristics at a very basic level is to appear well-put-together.”
Dr. Gurung applies his research to his everyday life, as should you. For example, he has a very different dress code for the days when he is teaching and the days when he is not. He says, “Today, I am not teaching, so I am in my most comfortable clothes: jeans and sneakers. On teaching days, I take great pains to dress up. I always wear a tie, and for the first few days of class, I dress business formal in a jacket and similar items because I really like to set the right tone and show that I take learning seriously.”
Two Reasons to Dress Your Best
So how much thought should you put into what you wear? Dr. Gurung says that this all depends on what your goals are and the context or situation. To make an accurate decision, he encourages you to always keep these two main things in mind: how you are perceived and your own performance.
For any readers of this article who may be thinking, “but I prefer to be comfortable,” Dr. Gurung agrees that this is sometimes okay too. However, always keep how you are perceived and your own performance in mind when determining your appearance. Depending on the situation, he says, “There are times when you can improve your game by dressing well.”
|How you are perceived.
If Dr. Gurung was sitting across from you and saw you dressed in a slobbish fashion, he says, “Nonconciously, I would likely think that you are not taking the situation seriously. Nonconciously, maybe even consciously, I also might not take what you are doing as seriously even though you may be working pretty well.” One study that Dr. Gurung conducted with his Psi Chi students and likes to highlight is called “Dressed to Present.” In this article, Dr. Gurung says that he and his students showed that “what students wear in presentations can influence how they are graded on that presentation and how credible they are seen” (Gurung, Kempen, Klemm, Senn, & Wysocki, 2014).
||As another example, consider the effects of wearing revealing clothing. Dr. Gurung says, “Let’s assume it is not overly revealing without getting into the specifics of what that would be because that varies. On the one hand, people in revealing clothing are perceived as more attractive. However, those kinds of perceptions are also accompanied by a slew of negative perceptions. For example, when you are wearing revealing clothing, a person who has never met you and never even heard you speak will tend to think of you as more promiscuous, more likely to have multiple sexual partners, and sadly to have lower self-esteem and lower intelligence. Perception can even vary based on the number of buttons a woman has undone on her blouse.”
|Your own performance.
From a psychological standpoint, Dr. Gurung knows that how someone perceives you can influence how you actually perform. He adds, “Some really fascinating new research has also suggested that what you wear influences your own performance too. For example, three years ago, folks did some work on what they called enclothed cognition, where they showed that participants in a lab actually worked a little harder on math questions when they were asked to put on a lab coat than when they were wearing something casual.”
A Brief History
Dr. Gurung describes the science of clothing in two primary domains. For the first domain, he prefaces his discussion by explaining that he has a PhD in social personality psychology. “As many readers know, social psychology is very much about the situation, personality psychology is about the individual, and most social personality programs now really focus on the interaction between the two. Clothing and what you wear is vintage social psychology, so when you look at the history of the science of clothing, you definitely see a lot of work in social psychology. More recent work is in personality psychology that looks at whether clothing reveals certain personality traits. From the social psychology side, there is a lot of work on first impressions, which relates back to why you should really dress up well on the first day of class because first impressions are extremely important. We have known for years now that people form an automatic quick impression of someone else based on what they see within about five seconds. A person doesn’t even have to be talking, but we look at them, and—bam!—we form the impression.”
In addition to social psychology research on clothing, Dr. Gurung has found a whole separate category of work on the science of clothing within the fashion industry. He says, “When I looked into this work, I saw the absolute bulk of publications in journals such as Clothing and Textiles, which as a social psychologist, I had not even known existed.” As he dug further into this material over the year, he was fascinated to learn that most of this work tends to be authored by people in fashion school and PhDs who work on fashion and clothing. “That’s where a lot of this psychological work is going on, even though the authors wouldn’t necessarily call it psychological work, nor is it located where you would normally look for social and personality articles.”
As it turns out, ideas about the psychological effects of clothing have been around for many years. As an example, Dr. Gurung speaks about New Zealand’s national men’s rugby union team, nicknamed the All Blacks, who won the World Cup for the third time in 2015. “Their uniforms are all black, and when I dug into why they were called the All Blacks [in 1905], it is because they thought that black would be an intimidating color. Psychologically, they nailed it because that is now completely borne out by the psychological research. Black is indeed seen as a little tougher and intimidating, whereas red is hands down the best color to wear if you want to get somebody’s attention in a positive way.”
Dr. Gurung has seen a lot of social psychology research dating back as early as the 1970s and early 80s. In fact, he once stumbled into an early textbook on the social psychology of clothing published during this time period. As he explains, “The book is now out of print, but it really straddled the clothing and textile work with social psychology before this type of research began to sort of fade away. Although there is still a lot of work going on, there was actually a lot more work on the psychology of clothing in the 70s than there is in mainstream psychology now.”
The Future of Clothing
According to Dr. Gurung, “As human beings, we make extremely quick, automatic judgements based on superficial characteristics. However, the more we know about the types of these automatic judgements that are made, the better that we can resist them. After all, just because we may make an automatic judgement does not mean that we have to stick with it.”
An example Dr. Gurung comes back to often—one that he finds to be quite unsettling—is when people say that women shouldn’t wear certain items of clothing. More often than not, he says, their reasoning for this is because “it will make men ‘do things.’ ”
In response, Dr. Gurung says, “No. We should be working on changing men’s behavior, not saying, ‘Try not to distract or tease the boys.’ Recently, the biggest debate has been about leggings and yoga pants in schools. I actually spoke to a principal who said, ‘I am thinking of banning them.’ When I asked him why, he said, ‘I think they are distracting the boys.’ So I said, ‘Then, go talk to the boys because you cannot just blame the clothing. Instead, you have got to change those behaviors.’ ”
According to Dr. Gurung, there is still a really big question when you think about the future of the science of clothing and how it can be used to benefit society. In particular, he believes that researchers need to psychologically determine what is “appropriate.” He says, “People always use that phrase, ‘You are not dressed appropriately,’ but what is appropriate and what are the judgements being used for appropriateness? Clothing should never be used as a justification because this can lead to a classic statement such as, ‘His sexist behavior was justified because she wore a short skirt.’ You hear that a lot where people blame the victim, but I don’t think we should go that route. I don’t think the answer is just, ‘Okay, do not wear shorter skirts.’ It has got to be more than that.”
“The future of clothing,” Dr. Gurung believes, “is manipulating clothing and varieties of clothing to see how perceptions change. For example, there are so many variables such as the cut, how revealing it is, and in fit, which you can manipulate to change how you are perceived. I don’t think we have all of the answers for how to best influence perceptions based on clothing, and I think that there is still a lot more to be done to get a much better sense of what little things you can change to influence how you are perceived. My hope is that we can reach a point where we can find those right buttons—pun intended—to press where we can defuse automatic negative perceptions and reactions to clothing.”
To pursue this aspiration, Dr. Gurung says, “I think my next big project is on mixing together my social psychological work on clothing with my pedagogical research on learning. I’ve got things in the works where I really want to take a close look at how important clothing is in the context of learning in the classroom. I have already published some work showing that faculty should dress well, but I want to do some more work on whether there is an optimal set of clothing for learning. For example, if you come to class in your sweats, are you nonconciously not learning as much as if you came in with something more formal? Even if the answer is no, I would much rather it be no than miss out on something overlooked that could be very influential. My real goal, and what I am doing more continuing work on, is to pull together a lot of good research into a clear-cut, useful plan for how students should study.”
Why You Should Get Involved
About 10 years ago, Dr. Gurung was teaching his Intro Psych students about research on waist-to-hip ratios and how women with a waist-to-hip ratio of .7 are perceived as more attractive. By the end of that day, he got an e-mail from a student who said, “I find that fascinating, but my roommate and I both have a .7 waist-to-hip ratio. Why is she seen as more attractive than I am?” Dr. Gurung soon discussed this question with the class, and a large part of the answer that they discovered was that the two students wore different types of clothing. He says, “That really got me thinking about how, even with the same body shape, you can tweak perceptions just by manipulating what you wear based on color, shape, or fit. That is what started a whole line of research.”
To anyone interested in studying the science of clothing, Dr. Gurung says, “Clothing research walks a really neat line between political correctness, biological automatic processes, and psychological processes. I think it is a fascinating topic to study and also a great entry point for people who want to dabble in research and experimentation. It is very fun, and there is just so much to be done.”
In particular, Dr. Gurung recommends for students to take Research Methods courses early, which are required in most departments. “If you really learn how to do research well, you can do anything or take on any topic, so get as many experiences as possible. Do independent studies, honors projects, and research assistantships too.” Dr. Gurung also encourages student research at his university by creating a “little pipeline” where students start as research assistants, go on to do an independent honors project, and then complete an honors project.
Ask Yourself This
During and even outside of his research, Dr. Gurung has witnessed his fair share of people who became nervous when they discovered that he is an expert in the science of clothing. Chuckling, he says, “Yes. I see a lot of self-consciousness and a lot of self-checking of attire, so sometimes I really don’t say too much about that because it can make people uncomfortable.”
Considering the significance of your appearance, take a moment to imagine yourself standing before Dr. Gurung or one of your peers. What would this person think about your clothing? Are you “dressed appropriately” for your situation, or are there changes that you could make to improve your appearance?
Dr. Gurung’s Psi Chi Involvement
To further support psychology students, Dr. Gurung decided to help charter a Psi Chi chapter at his university about 11 years ago. Since then, he has been a Psi Chi advisor, coadvisor, Midwestern Regional Steering Committee member, and Midwestern Regional Vice-President. Among his Vice-Presidential accomplishments, he notes being proud of the Midwestern Region’s Facebook® page, which he launched about two years ago. More importantly, he worked hard to streamline the poster application process for MPA. This resulted in dramatically more proposals so that the undergraduate program at MPA is now, as he identifies it, “a force to be reckoned with.”
Dr. Gurung also brought in big-name speakers for the convention such as Dr. Albert Bandura. He says, “I think that was historically one of the most attended Psi Chi events. The unofficial number is approximately 3,500 people. The room was maxed out with standing room only at about 1,300 people. More than a thousand others were waiting outside to get in. It was a rock concert.” In the next years, Dr. Gurung invited Drs. Janet Shibley Hyde and Susan T. Fiske. And of course, he dressed his best throughout these endeavors too!
Gurung, R. A. R., Kempen, L., Klemm, K., Senn, R., & Wysocki, R. (2014). Dressed to present: Ratings of classroom presentations vary with attire. Teaching of Psychology, 41, 349–353. doi:10.1177/0098628314549710
Regan Gurung, PhD, is the Ben J. and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Human Development and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. He has published articles in a variety of scholarly journals including American Psychologist, Psychological Review, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Teaching of Psychology, has a textbook, Health Psychology: A Cultural Approach, relating culture, development, and health published with Cengage (now in its third edition), and is also the coauthor/coeditor of 12 other books. An award winning teacher (The CASE Wisconsin Professor of the Year, the UW System Regents Teaching Award, the UW-Green Bay Founder’s Award for Excellence in Teaching) his research interests span social psychology, health psychology, and scholarship of teaching and learning.
Copyright 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the
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